Memorable characters, an intricate story and engrossing boss fights make Metal Gear Solid an indelible experience that you won’t soon forget.
On the surface, Metal Gear Solid looks like a generic stealth game where your main objective is to infiltrate an enemy base, defeat a bunch of bosses, uncover a secret operation and save the day. Look a little bit deeper though and you’ll realize that Metal Gear Solid is a true cinematic experience that is complemented by a complex story, deep characters, a painstaking attention to detail and a sort of interaction that not many developers are able to pull off. In other words, Metal Gear Solid is a modern magnum opus.
The game’s story takes place in an island codenamed “Shadow Moses.” A man who makes himself call Big Boss has captured a nuclear weapons facility and he says that if his demands are not met, he will launch a nuclear strike. Trained soldier Solid Snake is a sort of one-man army and his mission consists of infiltrating the nuclear weapon’s disposal facility, defeat the prestigious FOXHOUND unit, rescue both the DARPA Chief and the President of Arms Tech Kenneth Baker and capture the terrorist leader.
Although Snake infiltrates all by himself, he’s not exactly alone. At almost any time, he can contact various people via Codec radio to obtain useful tips regarding the enemies, environments, flora and fauna or even to save progress. The Codec sequences are put to great use, since Snake not only receives explanations about the combat moves or the mission itself, but he’s also introduced to the backstory. The story itself is memorable due in part to the personality of the different members of FOXHOUND, which include Revolver Ocelot, Vulcan Raven, Sniper Wolf, Psycho Mantis and Decoy Octopus, among others.
Not until you are in control of Snake do you realize why the game’s subtitle is Tactical Espionage Action. Nowadays, Metal Gear may be the series that most people associate with the stealth action genre, but what Metal Gear Solid did in 1998 was pretty much unprecedented. In order to infiltrate, it’s important to study your surroundings to spot enemies or other nearby threats (wolves, mines and so on and so forth.) Learning the pattern in which patrolling guards move is also a must if you want to remain undiscovered. To do so, Snake has a wide variety of choices at his disposal: he can crawl under objects, lean against walls, duck behind boxes, make noise to lure enemies or make use of a wide arsenal of deadly weapons which includes everything from a sniper rifle to a Stinger missile system. Additionally, Snake has access to a radar that not only shows nearby enemies, but also their field of vision.
If the enemy spots you, an alarm alerting everyone nearby sets off and attracts armed soldiers to your location. This also triggers alert mode, which encourages you to remain hidden for a while. Leaving the enemy’s field of vision starts a countdown and when the counter reaches zero, the game enters evasion mode. In this mode, enemies actively look for Snake, but if you manage to remain unseen enough time, the game returns to the regular infiltration mode, allowing you to use your radar again. It’s worth pointing out that the radar is rendered useless in both alert and evasion mode, since the modern gadget gets jammed easily.
From a technical standpoint, the game also stands out above the rest. Prior to the release of Metal Gear Solid, most PlayStation titles made use of lavish CGI to display cutscenes. Then this game came along, using cinematics that were rendered using the in-game engine. Undoubtedly, this effect provided a true cinematic experience that was pretty much unheard of at the time. The camera, for instance, has a cinematic flair to it: when you walk, it positions above Snake, but when he leans against a wall, the camera changes position to provide a better look of the area.
More importantly, Metal Gear Solid is a game that is remembered for defying the player’s expectations and constantly breaking the forth wall. During your encounter with Psycho Mantis, the member of FOXHOUND uses his telepathic powers to scan your memory card. He then proceeds to say something according to your performance so far or the Konami saves you might have. If you saved too many times, he will call you “cautious,” if you died too many times, he will make fun of you, if you played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, he will bring up that fact and so on and so forth. Interestingly, at one point during the same boss encounter the screen goes black and the word HIDEO can be read in the corner of the screen (Hideo Kojima is Metal Gear Solid’s director,) Mantis then asks you to plug the controller on another port in order to continue the fight. Say what you will about moments like these, but when have you seen developers use the PlayStation’s hardware so creatively?
There are multiple examples of ways in which Metal Gear Solid tears down the forth wall, since the title is filled with moments that carefully integrate into its complex lore: Revolver Ocelot tells you that to withstand its torture event you need to rapidly push the circle button, but he warns you about using a turbo controller, Meryl blushes if you stare at her for too long, Mei Ling (who allows you to save your progress) gives advice in the form of Chinese proverbs and quotations and the list of examples goes on and on.
Yet for all its strengths, Metal Gear Solid isn’t without some issues. First of all (and let’s get this out of the way once and for all,) the cutscenes are excessively long. This isn’t a game that you would want to play for a just few minutes. The story requires you to be completely focused at all times and some will find it impenetrable or hard to follow. Moreover, the game’s sense of humor is not for everyone and at times, it’s hard to know if the game is laughing at you or with you.
In terms of controls, you’ll have moments in which you’re running away from enemy soldiers who have just spotted you and Snake gets stuck in the environment or unintentionally leans against an object. Sadly, controls don’t always respond the way you intend them to. Finally and as in most stealth titles, Metal Gear Solid demands a lot of trial-and-error which means that you’ll be spotted and killed dozens of times if you’re careless.
Despite its issues, it’s easy to see why Metal Gear Solid was the game that set a new standard when it comes to stealth action games. More importantly though, this is a game where you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next. It seems like the game is inviting you to draw conclusions, build your own theories and take wild guesses, only to completely tear them down a few minutes aftewards. Still, memorable characters, an intricate story and engrossing boss fights will keep you coming back for more. Metal Gear Solid is an indelible experience that you won’t soon forget.
Editor’s Note: the version reviewed was part of Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection.